Straight Allies 101: A History Lesson
One of the most encouraging aspects of the fight for equality has been the willing enlistment of what are called "straight allies." From the worlds of pro sports to entertainment, politics to business, these enthusiastic heterosexual supporters have become an integral part of the gay rights movement.
Across the board, organizations have been setting up divisions to enlist, abet and direct straight allies. The Human Rights Campaign, Movement Advancement Project, Log Cabin Republicans, National Stonewall Democrats and Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund have put together an "ally’s guide."
Heterosexuals, however, are doing it for themselves. Straight for Equality and Swish are just two organizations begun by and whose membership comprises straight men and women. Yes, straight men, who years ago would have sooner died than be associated with gay rights, are happily becoming as prominent - if not more so - as their female counterparts. Swish was formerly called Straight Women In Support of Homos, but when the gals found that so many of their boyfriends and other guy pals wanted to join, the group dropped the acronym.
While we celebrate a year of victories, capped off by marriage equality in Utah and New Mexico, let us take time to reflect on a man who may have been the first straight supporter, albeit an accidental one, in the history of the modern gay rights movement.
Who it is and how it all came together will surprise and delight you.
Unless you are a hardcore aficionado of the 1960s Greenwich Village blues-folk-rock scene, you’ve probably never heard of Dave Van Ronk. Until recently, that is: Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film, "Inside Llewyn Davis," is loosely based on Van Ronk’s life. The film, in wide release this month, has inspired new interest in Van Ronk, including a reissue of a three-CD retrospective, a stream of one of his performances, and a new documentary.
First, a little background: Dave Van Ronk was born from old Dutch and much newer Irish stock in Brooklyn in 1936. After flirting with jazz, Van Ronk found his true métier in the Mississippi blues revival that was just getting under way in the 1950s. That interest inevitably led him to Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and the folk music revolution that was centered in the bohemian neighborhood.
Before long, Van Ronk was associating with artists who soon entered into the American mainstream consciousness, and a few who would become superstars, in particular Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. At one point, Van Ronk was considered for the latter, but fate decreed that "Peter, Dave and Mary" was not to be.
As for Bob Dylan, Van Ronk often expressed more than a bit of bitterness that the scruffy young man from Hibbing, Minn., made it in the wider world while he remained a niche player. When the young Dylan heard Van Ronk’s rock-blues arrangement of a traditional New Orleans ballad about the child of a whore inevitably drawn back to the bawdy houses of his youth, Dylan "borrowed" it and made "House of the Rising Sun" one of his signature songs (pretty much the same arrangement became a monster hit for a British group, the Animals).
Nevertheless, many of the folkies who rose to fame have cited Van Ronk as an important influence. Joni Mitchell has said that his gravelly-voiced adaptation of the much-covered "Both Sides Now" is her favorite version.